Review: The White Crow

“White crow,” as the film informs us early on, is a term used to describe a person who is unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.

A Rudolph Nureyev.

For those unfamiliar with political and dance history, Nureyev was a promising young talent in Leningrad’s famed Kirov ballet company when he shocked the Soviets and the world by defecting to the West at the conclusion of a Parisian tour in 1961. The White Crow is Nureyev’s story, as told through the lens of actor/director Ralph Fiennes who pulls double-duty as Nureyev’s Russian dance instructor Alexander Pushkin. Fiennes chose a dancer over an actor to portray Nureyev – a leap of faith that ends up sacrificing story in the service of art.

Nureyev is played by world-class Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko. When strutting his stuff as Nureyev in rehearsal halls and across the stage, Ivenko is absolutely captivating. But his lack of acting experience reveals itself when called upon to drive a narrative that doesn’t do him any favors. The story bounces between time and place, from Nureyev’s birth on a Trans-Siberian train, to his childhood in Leningrad, his touring (and sight-seeing) days in Paris and back and forth, back and forth. That particular plot device worked against what is, in essence, an interesting reveal of the man who came to be known as Lord of the Dance (and here you probably thought that title belonged to Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley!). Turns out Nureyev was quite the temperamental, patronizing, magnetic, brooding and complicated guy, struggling with his sexual identity and his yearning for creative freedom at the height of the Cold War.

The White Crow offers insight into Nureyev’s dangerous defection (and cat and mouse game with the KGB), his personal and artistic motivations, and the assistance he got from a well-connected 21-year-old Parisian friend, Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The White Crow is in Russian, English and French (with English subtitles) and is rated R for sexual themes and content. It skews arty but has a bit of mainstream appeal, especially for those who appreciate a good ballet. I just wish it had more dancing.

Parts of the story felt incomplete or unsatisfying, possibly due to those periodic shifts in time and place. But also because Nureyev is often shown to be rude and annoying, leaving me wondering: are we supposed to like him as a person or just admire him as a dancer? It’s complicated.

[Note: the film brought back memories of White Nights, the 1985 drama starring dancer/defector/actor Mikhail Baryshnikov that made the Phil Collins song “Separate Lives” and the Lionel Richie song “Say You, Say Me” total earworms. You’re welcome.]

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